Diego Rivera Industry Murals
Detroit Institute of Art

8200 Woodward

This is Detroit’s newest National Historic Landmark.  The murals were so classified in April, 2014.  National Historic Landmarks are designated by the Secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service because of their exceptional value and importance in illustrating the history and heritage of the country.  There are, nationwide, about 2500 National Historic Landmarks.  Eight of them are in the city of Detroit and another seven are in the immediate suburban ring.

Wilhelm Valentier is an important figure in the history of Detroit and receives fewer accolades than he merits.  Born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1880; he studied at the university in Leipzig and then earned a doctorate in art history from the university in Heidelberg in 1904.  He went to work at the Kaiser Frederick Museum in Berlin.  Shortly thereafter, J. P. Morgan, who then served as president of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, traveled to Germany and sought to recruit a curator for a newly established unit focused upon decorative arts.  Valentier accepted that appointment and came to New York in 1908.  Rapidly, he became well known as his knowledge and accomplishments as an art historian.  He founded an important publication for this field, Art in America in 1913.  The following year he returned to Germany to serve as a   private in the Wehrmacht.

Valentier maintained his major interest in art.  After a nation has been defeated in warfare, it is quite likely that its museums and its most prosperous families will be short of cash.  This is an ideal time for people to buy masterpieces.  I infer that within a year or so of the Allies' victory, Valentier was assisting the Detroit Institute of Art in the acquisition of major European art works.  I do not know how leaders of the Detroit Institute of Art made arrangements with Valentier, but given his reputation, it is not a surprise.

He returned to the United States in 1921 and resumed his employment at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The Detroit Institute of Art, in 1918, was facing financial troubles.  The city, however, was prosperous as the vehicle production increased.  The leaders of the Detroit Institute of Art agreed to turn over their holdings to the city in return for a generous annual stipend from the city’s treasury.  As the city’s receipts soared in the 1920s, the Detroit Institute of Art was well supported.  Their leaders, in 1924, selected the very talented and entrepreneurial Wilhelm Valentier to lead their institution.  And he did a marvelous job.

The Detroit Institute of Art had been founded in 1885.  When the city took over its operation, it was located in a building on Jefferson that was later razed.  With the beneficial financial circumstance, the Institute was able to commission a new building.  After a competition, Paul Philippe Cret, from Lyon and Philadelphia, was selected to design the magnificent Beaux Arts structure that graces Detroit’s Cultural Center.  It is the sixth largest art gallery in the country.

Diego Rivera was born into a prosperous family in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886.  He studied art in Mexico and was recognized for his unusual talents.   When he was 21, he went to Europe where there were more opportunities to learn.  He spent about 13 years in Spain, France and Italy studing art.  He spent much time in Paris which was then a crucible of artistc innovation.  His circle of friends, colleagues and associates in Paris included leading artists of that era, a time when Cubism was emerging thanks to Picasso and others.  Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921.  The Mexican Revolution had occurred just a few years earlier and the Mexican government wished to promote symbols of the new nation.  Presumably, they recognized that there was an emerging Mexican mural style of painting. Thus the Mexican government provided support to encouraging the painting of murals in government buildings as public places.  On a smaller scale, the United States government did a similar thing during the Depression so we have quite a few post offices here in Michigan with murals painted by artists engaged by the Works project Administration.  While attractive, these post office murals here in Michigan will not be confused with the work of Diego Rivera.

He became one of the leaders of a school of Mexican muralist art.  Apparently, he felt that the art should be on public display, not something that could only be appreciated in the salons of the mansions of the very rich.  He also wanted to represent the popular culture in his mural—to some degree they represented the day-to-day lives of local people, although they included symbolic reprsentations of some of the classical themes  And, they were done in a very colorful and distinctive Mexican style.

In 1930, Diego Rivera accepted an appointment to paint a mural in one of the rooms of the San Francisco Stock Exchange as well as another mural for the Califorina School of Fine Arts.  These were very well received and the following year, there was a major exposition of his work in New York.  Thus Rivera came to be recognized as an important new artist with a distinctive style.

Valentier’s fine building in Detroit had a marvelous court at the entryway.  In 1931, its walls were blank.  I have seen pictures of them before Rivera arrived.  They were attractive but nothing more than white walls.  At this point, I infer, Valentier realized the importance of Rivera’s innovative work as a muralist and approached him about painting murals in Detroit.  Rivera accepted and agreed to come to Detroit in 1932.  The Depression, of course, was greatly constricting Detroit’s budget so the DIA funds would not be sufficient to support the work of Rivera.  I do not know what the total charge was but it exceeded the DIA’s budget.  Valentier approached Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, who agreed to support $20,000 for the project.  That translates to about $340,000 in 2014 dollars.  I believe that Rivera was paid one lump sum to paint all of these murals.  He had to hire his own assistants and, presumably, pay for the required supplies. 

Rivera came to Detroit knowing that the city’s distinctive culture and symbolism to the world centered around vehicle production.  Edsel Ford officially had a role in Ford’s management but most people believe that Henry Ford ran the firm and seldom consulted his son.  Edsel Ford facilitated Rivera’s spending much time at the River Rouge plant.  Apparently, for about three month, Rivera visited the plant almost daily accompnied by a Ford photographer and other assistants.  While there , Rivera sketched what he saw.  He also realized that Detroit was a center for the pharmaceutical industry so he visited the Parke Davis firm whose research building on the Detroit River is also a National Historic Landmark.

There are two major gigantic murals—one on the north wall and the other on the south wall of the courtyard.  But there are many other panels, including some on the north and south walls for a total of 27.  For the most part, they show industrial production in the auto industry but they are much more complicated than this sentence suggests.  Rivera painted a picture of himself and various other local officals into his murals.  He also incorporated Aztec symbolism.  Apparently, he enjoyed this work greatly but worked very diligently, often spending 15 hours in a session.  Reportedly, the large Diego Rivera lost 100 pounds while painting these murals.  These are fresco meaning that Rivera and his assistants applied paint to moist plaster.

Rivera was a bigger than life controversial figure who was often in the news presenting his ideas and views that offended many. His Detroit murals were also controversial.  Rivera identified himself as Jewish and claimed that was a major part of his identity.  Ancestors on his mother side, presumably in Spain, had been forcefully converted.  He was also something of a militant athetist and asserted that religion filled neurotic needs.  And, he was an outspoken Communist.  I am not sure that leaders of the Communist Party in the United States or Mexico wished to have him as their spokesman during the Depression decade but he wished to do so and often presented his political views.  His personal life was also a complicated one with four different wives.  The prominent Frido Kaldo was his spouse when he worked in Detroit and she accompanied him here.

There was controversy when the murals were unveiled in 1933.  Some critics contended that his art work was designed to promote Communism since they saw his murals as  portraying the way capitalists exploited labor and treated workers with disdain.   They were condemned as Marxist propaganda. In one section of his mural, he including a representation of a newborn baby with a halo of golden hair.  The infants was surrounded by its parents with a horse in the background.  Some thought this was an attempt to mock the traditional Nativity scene.    Mary was portrayed by Rivera as a nurse but she was vaccinating the infant.  The father figure—Joseph—was shown as a doctor.  A group of Catholic and Episcopalian ministers witnessed this and assumed that it was a blasphamous representation of the Holy Family in Bethleham.  They joined the chorus of those who demanded that the Detroit Institute of Art get rid of Diego Rivera’s work.  Whilem Valentier and Edsel Ford defended the murals and they remain on the walls but not without controversy.

Just a year after completing these murals, Rivera was asked to paint murals for Rockefeller Center in New York City.  He began to do so but included a portrayal of Lenin in his mural.  Nelson Rockefeller, who served as vice-president when Michigan’s Jerry Ford was in the White House, was a junior member of the Rockefeller Family at this time.  He was dispatched to tell Rivera that if the portrayal of Lenin was not removed, the murals would be destrioyed.  Rivera refused and the murals were knocked.

At the height of the Joseph McCarthy era in the 1950s, there were again calls for removing the murals from the DIA because of their link to Communism.  Diego Rivera was still alive and painting murals in Mexico and never renounced his political beliefs.  Once again, the charge was that the DIA was popularizing Marxist propaganda.  The insitute posted a large sign near them condemning the destable political ideas of Diego Rivera but did not remove the murals.

Just a year after the murals in Detroit were finished, the city ran out of sufficient funds to support the DIA.  Valentier lost his salary and returned to Germany for about a year and a half.  Then he came back to Detroit where he served as director until 1944.  Continuing as a highly successful art entrepreneur, he helped to estblish art museums in los Angeles and then in Raleigh, North Carolina.

It is interesting to think about how values change over the decades.  In the 1930s and again in the 1950s, some people were demanding the removal or destruction of these Detroit murals since they seemed to promote Communism.  And a future Vice-President of the United States had Rivera murals knocked off the walls of the Rockefeller Center because of an image of Vladimir Lenin.  Then, in 2014, the federal government designated the Rivera murals as a National Historic Landmark because of their contribution to the nation’s cultural heritage.

I or one of my colleagues or collaborators took almost every picture displayed on this website.
This webpage is an exception.  The pictures shown here were taken from public websites.
Artist: Diego Rivera
Date of Installation: 1933
Use in 2015; Public Art
Website for Diego Rivera Foundation: http://www.diego-rivera-foundation.org/
Website for Detroit Institute of Art: http://www.dia.org/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:  The Detroit Institute of Art is within the Cultural Center Historic District. P25,056
National Register of Historic Places: The Detroit Institute of Art is within the Cultural Center Historic District which was listed on the National Register on November 21, 1983.
National Historic landmark: The Diego Rivera mural were listed in April, 2014
Description prepared; February, 2015

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